HP Labs researchers have discovered that the memristor can be used to perform logic operations, opening the door to more advanced chips that use the memory devices in place of transistors.
On Thursday, the researchers said they have developed an array of memristors 150 atoms wide that could perform both logic and storage operations. The devices were developed by a team at HP Labs led by R. Stanley Williams, who also led the development of the first memristor two years ago.
Memristors, which retain memory states even when no current is being passed through them, were first theorised in 1971 by Leon Chua, an academic at the University of California at Berkeley. However, they were only realised by HP Labs almost 40 years later, in 2008.
HP Labs' latest findings, published this week in the journal Nature, show that the memristor can be used not just as a memory device, but also to perform computations. That means computation could be performed on chips where data is stored, rather than on a specialised processing unit.
As memristors retain memory in the absence of power, in theory they could lead to the creation of computers that turn on and off instantly, according to HP.
The company hypothesised that within five years memristor-based computing could be used to create handheld devices with 10 times the embedded memory possible today, or to power supercomputers that could reach speeds faster than what Moore's Law suggests is possible using current technologies.
HP said it has created architectures for memory chips using memristors, and it believes memristor-based devices could come to market "within the next few years".
The computation breakthrough is significant partly in light of the way the memristor behaves, as it can act as a digital as well as an analogue device, HP said. That means memristor-based computers could act in ways similar to the human brain, according to the researchers.
"Since our brains are made of memristors, the floodgate is now open for commercialisation of computers that would compute like human brains, which is totally different from the von Neumann architecture underpinning all digital computers," said Chua in a statement.
Memristors require less energy to operate and are faster than current solid-state storage technologies such as flash memory. In addition, they can store at least twice as much data in the same area, according to HP.
They are also more resistant than transistor-based technologies to disruption from radiation, a problem that is grows more serious for transistors the further they are miniaturised.
According to Chua's theory, the memristor is a device as fundamental as the resistor, inductor and capacitor, but is based on the relationship between flux and charge, rather than between voltage and charge.
In 2008, when HP demonstrated the first memristor, Chua said the shift from a voltage-charge paradigm to one based on flux and charge is as dramatic as the shift from the Aristotelian to the Newtonian concepts of physics.